It’s a rite of passage for young rockers but rarely applies to virtuoso instrumentalists in a newly formed jazz trio: Get in the van and go. But that’s the path keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood chose back in the early 1990s. And like the poet said, that has made all the difference.
Nearly 20 years later, Medeski Martin & Wood are entrenched as an international touring unit, a fixture on the jam-band circuit, welcome in such medium-sized venues as the House of Blues, where they will perform Friday. Their instrumental music is groove-based but open-ended and loosely structured, sometimes steering into out-and-out cacophony. On the jam-band pendulum, it swings well toward challenging.
But back in 1991, decisions had to be made. Medeski Martin & Wood were a rising force in New York’s influential “downtown scene,” where experimentalism reigned and the alchemy of style was not only accepted, but it was also the whole point.
“Artists who were part of that scene had so many interesting ideas, were blending so many categories. I was really proud to be part of it,” says Billy Martin. But while artistically fruitful, the downtown scene could be insular. “Some musicians didn’t know what to do if they left New York City,” the drummer continues. “We felt we should try to promote ourselves, not wait for some small label to discover us. We got in the van and played the hinterlands.”
The hinterlands being, initially, the Eastern Seaboard.
They set up gigs by phone, gigs that paid them part of the door. They crammed into Martin’s van—dubbed the “big brown booger”—just the three of them and their stuff. Medeski didn’t have cases for his keyboards. They’d miscalculate how long the drive took, get lost, barely make the gig, pray that their gear would work. Most of the promoters, dialed into the New York downtown scene, were stoked to have them and worked hard to get the word out. Still, Medeski Martin & Wood routinely played for audiences of five to 15 at coffeehouses, college venues and art houses.
Martin maintained the van. Wood did the books. Medeski cooked. “We had a burner stove and pressure-cooker in the van,” Martin recalls. “[Medeski] would roll up rice balls, like sushi, and we ate rice balls and sesame. It was like a survival diet. The fast food was killing us.”
During their travels, Medeski haunted little shops and acquired a growing array of vintage analog keyboards. He plumbed their settings and deepened the Medeski Martin & Wood sonic palette. Soon enough, they needed an RV with a trailer. Medeski got cases for his instruments.
Medeski Martin & Wood inked a deal with the respected indie label Gramavision. Their second album for the company, 1995’s Friday Afternoon In the Universe—recorded in a remote shack in Hawaii using generators—garnered attention from fans of forward-thinking jazz as well as the patchouli set. Later that year, on Oct. 14, the trio opened for Phish at the Austin Music Hall in Texas.
In 1998, Medeski Martin & Wood signed to the historic jazz imprint Blue Note, where they stayed for six years and five albums. The threesome titled their 2000 disc The Dropper—Medeski’s take was that the music was so out-there it was bound to get them dropped from the label. Their Blue Note tenure lasted another two CDs, the final one named, with prophetic overtones, End of the World Party (Just In Case).
Since then, the group have exclusively released material on their self-owned Indirecto label. The latest project, Radiolarians, was a series of three discs released over a year’s time, culminating in a lavish box set (the run of 3,000 is nearly sold out). The sprawling music ranges from jagged piano jazz to hip-hop-influenced funk, world rhythms to straight-up instrumental rock. “Obviously, Radiolarians would have never happened on a major label,” Martin declares.
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Recording for Indirecto brings not only more responsibility and risk (“in the sense that we own our mistakes”), but also greater freedom and control. “It feels good,” Martin says. “We don’t have to worry about people who are paying for us to go into the studio. Plus, we own the music, and we can benefit from that for the rest of our lives.”
However Medeski Martin & Wood structure their recording career, touring “has always paid the bills,” Martin says. And they are no different from regular folks in a brutal economy. “Last year was the scariest,” he admits. “I’m living on the edge financially. But I get the sense that we will always have work if we want it. We may not necessarily get the money we think we deserve, but there’s always work out there.”
Medeski Martin & Wood play at House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.houseofblues.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $22.50 in advance; $25 day of show. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Working Man’s Jazz: Medeski Martin & Wood bring their avant-garde grooves to House of Blues."